May 22, 2014

Small towns, beware of the Texas Public Policy Foundation bearing gifts

You’ve probably heard, more than once, the phrase “venture capitalism.”

Well, I’m going to introduce you to another: “vulture capitalism.” Because, as smaller towns and cities struggle to recover from the Great Recession, or a city as big as Detroit goes into bankruptcy and seeks to come out, right-wing think tanks with hoary old Reagan-era nostrums in new dress are perched on their telephone lines looking for cheap roadkill to eat. Up north, in urban areas, that includes pension funds and unions.

Down South in small towns, who knows what it could include. And, speaking of ...

It sounds wonderful that a big Austin-based think tank like the Texas Public Policy Foundation wants to help a small Texas town with a poverty rate on the high side of 30 percent and a large minority population, even to the point of using it as a test city, right? Well, maybe.

At the same time, to modernize an old Greek oracle, “Beware of public policy foundations bearing gifts.” And, maybe we should say to beware some of the gift wrap, too. Because its shiny foil has no clothes beneath it.

Take this city’s code of ordinances. It’s true that it could use modernization. At the same time, if some of the ordinances listed in the reported nearly 400 pages of ordinances have officially been “struck off,” being declared null and void by new ordinances. So, that means that, in reality, the city doesn’t have a code of nearly 400 pages; it means that somebody hasn’t opened the three-ring binder and removed some pages from the book.

“Empowerment zones” also sound nice. Doesn’t anything with the word “empowerment” in front of it? Or “freedom”? Or “apple pie” or “baseball” or “Chevrolet”? 

I mean, who could not like "empowerment subprime mortgages"? Or "freedom crack cocaine"? Or "Chevrolet Nova"? See, all great concepts. I'll resist the temptation to mention "Chicago Cubs baseball."

That said, the touting of “empowerment zones,” under the slightly different name of “enterprise zones,” was first really touted at the federal level of government. They were pushed by one Ronald Wilson Reagan, after he lifted it from Margaret Thatcher. Along with that, he pushed the ideas of union-busting, hordes of welfare queens overrunning our country and more.

And, any good non-brainwashed person knows that professional conservatives have become past masters at such labeling. It’s kind of funny, in fact, that despite all the Hollywood connections, liberals haven’t nailed down the idea of glitzy renaming. I would have mentioned Silicon Valley connections, but the folks out there voting Democrat are libertarians in neoliberal drag.

Other ideas that TPPF’s Jess Fields mentioned to this city sounded great, too. Doing a better job of cleaning trash off streets is good. But, the city doesn’t need any changes in its ordinances, or enterprise zones, or anything else to do that. It already has a community service program for inmates, which Fields himself noted.

And, TPPF already has a  history that shows its inimical to the interests of this county.

This is one of the think tanks that applauded Rick Perry’s franchise tax idea a few years back when many observers knew that it wouldn’t be enough to adequately meet the state’s responsibility for its portion of public school funding. Well, it wasn’t, and once again and not the first time in Rick Perry’s administration, the state got sued by various school districts, including one here in this county. It even has a “tag” on its blogs called “over-regulation,” and one piece by Fields himself claims that banning plastic grocery bags, as Austin did, may be “deadly” because reusable bags might harbor killer bacteria

Yes, canvas grocery bags, like the ones I’ve used for a decade, could kill you. Last I checked, they had done me a lot less harm than Texas’ mountain cedars. Of course, since many of those cedars in the Hill Country provide shelter for Endangered Species Act-listed golden-cheeked warblers, TPPF would probably love to help me and other allergy sufferers by abolishing the ESA, then chopping down cedars. What swell folks, eh?

Note to TPPF: Any canvas bag toter who croaks in front of the North Austin Whole Foods? It's much more likely to be a botox OD than "baggus salmonellicus." Second guess is finding something non-GMO in that bag or something, not the bag itself. Third? Asphyxiation from finding out that a vial of TPPF hot air was detonated inside the bag.

This isn’t to say that everything a big conservative think tank proposes is going to be wrong, just because it’s conservative, or just because it’s big, or just because it’s coming out of Austin. But, TPPF wants to use a small as a test case precisely to push a larger public policy agenda from a certain political point of view.

So, back to that updated Greek oracle. Folks, it’s OK to accept gifts from public policy foundations bearing them. But, underneath the gift wrap, there will be strings attached. And, the presenter will be wearing no clothes.

And besides, if the TPPF wants to play Santa Claus to a small town, shouldn’t it let that small town present its own gift wish list? Oh, like, telling Rick Perry to stop executing poor minority people? Or, if we want to confine ourselves to economic "empowerment," how about telling Tricky Ricky to buy into Obamacare, including Medicaid expansion?

Somehow, I don't picture the TPPF doing this. Nor would it adopt an environmental idea, like Public Citizen might propose, of helping line up a third party to put rooftop solar panels on the roofs of abandoned buildings in this small town.

But let’s get back to the vulture capitalism.

Why is TPPF picking THIS small town as a test tube?

First, with a poverty rate above 30 percent, I’m venturing it hopes that nobody will look a gift horse in the mouth.

Second, it may think that with that poverty rate and a lot of minority voters, not a lot of people will know a lot about the TPPF, ignoring that not every small-town newspaper editor is either uninformed or a small-town conservative in his or her thinking.

Well, TPPF, you’re wrong on the second, and hopefully, because of that, you’ll be wrong on the first, too.

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